Over the Christmas break I found myself playing through Civilization 4 for the first time in about ten years. It did a lot of neat stuff that I’d just plain forgotten about, so I decided to play through all of the Civilization games to see how well they held up today and how the series had evolved from one iteration to the next, and then write something summing up that experience so that I’ll have something to refer back to when I inevitably forget again.
Civilization has the distinction of being the very first game I played on a proper IBM PC. This was way back in my school computer room in 1995, which was an environment that was far too cheap for Windows 95 and the flashy multimedia games that came with it, and so the four year-old Civilization was the best we could manage on the 386s we had available. By this point I’d played newer, better-looking games on the Atari, Archimedes and Megadrive (not to mention Doom and Command & Conquer on some weird PC card hookup jammed into an Acorn RISC PC), and Civilization looked positively primitive by comparison. It didn’t matter. I was instantly hooked.
Well, of course I was. Ever since I played Mega Lo Mania there’s been something particularly intoxicating to me about that image of cavemen versus soldiers on the front cover, and Civilization was an entire game that took that idea and applied it to the real world. It was also the first game I played where military confrontation took a backseat to city logistics and scientific advancement. War is obviously a big part of Civilization — probably bigger than in any of the sequels, just purely as a consequence of there being comparatively fewer other mechanics for it to fall back on — but there’s a non-violent way to win and you can get through an entire game without fighting anyone, if you play it right. This was just as well given the primitive combat mechanics, since you could never quite be sure what was going to happen when you threw your troops at the enemy; the original Civilization is the game that originated the infamous “spearmen beating tanks” phenomenon, after all.
In spite of how undeveloped this and other parts of Civilization are, going back to it I was pleasantly surprised at how well it held up twenty-eight years after it was released . I’m not saying I’d particularly choose to play it over certain later iterations if I didn’t have a nostalgic fondness for the way it does things, but even if I cast the rose-tinted glasses aside I can’t think of any games contemporary to Civilization that have aged anywhere near as well1. I think part of the reason why this is so is that Civilization itself was inspired by a boardgame and so this first iteration is possibly the most boardgame-y Civillization of them all. Boardgames (or at least good boardgames) have a much longer shelf-life than your average videogame because they focus on clean, transparent mechanics above all else. Civilization follows that line of thinking, preferring a relatively small number of advances and improvements which have sweeping, powerful effects which are nevertheless quite simple and whose value is easily understood by the player.
Take the Library as an example. In modern Civs this improvement does something anaemic like giving you an extra two scientist slots that can be worked by citizens, which creates something like six points of extra science and which is only powerful because of how miserly the later games are with resource gain. On the other hand the original implementation of the Library was that it increased science gain in that city by a whopping 50%; given that base science yields are already quite high (thanks to it being a function of trade value converted to science instead of a dedicated science resource), the effect of building a Library in a single city is immediately noticeable on an empire scale. It feels good to build a Library in Civilization, even 24 years after I first played it. It feels like I’m making big steps towards building up my empire, instead of the infinitesimal power increases of the later games.
Because there’s less to build (but the things you can build do more), the ancient-medieval phase of Civilization ends up feeling quite nippy. Build times are quite long until your cities have a few population units under their belt, but there’s no fancy animations getting the way and it’s much faster at doing the number-crunching that follows every End Turn action, meaning that waiting ten turns for your Temple to finish is actually faster than waiting five turns for something to complete in one of the newer games. There’s also no Worker units to micromanage; at this point we’re using Settlers to build tile improvements, and maintaining Settler units is very expensive in terms of production and food, so early on you’re only going to be able to spare one or two at most. However, because of that limitation tile improvements are much faster to build, with roads being built instantly and irrigation taking 4-5 turns.
Later on the game slows down a bit, both as a natural consequence of having more cities with more to do, and because Civilization is very fond of showing you everything you’ve accomplished on that turn in minute detail. I’ve spoken of my love for Civilization’s City View before, and for good reason: it’s tremendously effective at making those single colour squares that represent your cities on the world map feel like actual places that you’ve built, and you’ll be transported there every time you build a new improvement or wonder, or when the population gets unruly and downs tools because you don’t have enough Elvis impersonators on hand. Whenever you research a new technology you’re confronted with a full-screen description of the thing you just researched first, and then a summary of what it unlocks, which is a nice way of jamming some edutainment into the game2. If you change government you’re informed of the new thematically-appropriate ruling council via a newspaper headline. The game is full of these little visual flourishes, likely in an attempt to compensate for the basic graphics on the world map and the city management screen, which is where you spend 90% of your time.
I was going to say that you’d never get away with this today, and that dragging the player around the game like this is a pretty big UI no-no for all that it adds to Civilization’s atmosphere. That would be a complete lie, however, seeing as how modern Civilizations are, if anything, even more pushy with grabbing the player away from whatever they were concentrating on and e.g. making them manually reroute eight trade routes and place three spies every few turns. So if we’re going to do this, Firaxis, can we at least spend the time looking at something worthwhile instead of a trade route dialogue? The connection with the game world as an actual world is something that recent 4Xes are in danger of losing touch with completely; I’ve spoken of my dislike for Endless Space reducing its colonies to a bunch of numbers, and Civilization has been headed down the same route for a while. It would be nice if Firaxis used their utter disregard for UI norms to build a more robust context around your civilisation and lend it more of a sense of place.
Another thing that struck me about the original Civilization that’s been lost in the more modern iterations: the tech tree is a genuine tech tree instead of a collection of anaemic tech sticks. You can research Explosives without ever having discovered Masonry or Bronze Working. Once you’ve worked your way up to the highest levels of the tree you start building the spaceship, and Civilization’s approach to it is, in my opinion, far superior to any other Civilization game (save 2, whose spaceship is a direct copy of this one). Instead of having ten individual spaceship components with glacial build times resulting in a mind-numbingly repetitious hammering of the “End Turn” button, Civilization has you building up a spaceship out of a set of small parts which are relatively quick to produce, but which you have to build multiple copies of. The full spaceship requires 12 SS Modules, 12 SS Components and 40-odd SS Structures; you can launch with fewer than this if you’re pressed for time and are happy with scoring fewer points at the end of the game, but I prefer building the full thing. The build time for the complete spaceship is approximately the same as in later editions of Civilization, but because it’s parcelled up into smaller chunks like this you feel like you’re making concrete progress towards its completion — more than that, you can see it taking shape in orbit, piece by piece. Again, it’s something that feels far more satisfying to build than the spaceship in Civilization 6, where you don’t get to see the fruits of your actions and the game ends as soon as you hit the “Launch” button so you don’t get to see it fly, either.
In just about every 4X I can think of there’s been a tension between two major strategies: building up a relatively small number of super-cities with high resource outputs, otherwise known as “going tall”, or eschewing city development in favour of cranking out Settler units to expand as fast as possible by founding new cities on every available scrap of land, otherwise known as “going wide”. Ideally you do a bit of both and try to balance the two approaches, but the first Civilization games were infamous for the phenomenon of “infinite city sprawl”, or ICS, which should tell you a little something about how successful the early efforts to discourage going wide were. In fact, until I did this replay of Civilization I thought that was actually intentional, and that it wasn’t until later that designers realised micromanaging an empire of thirty cities could get a bit tedious. However, it turns out it does make an attempt to stop the player from gobbling up virgin territory and AI empires alike via two mechanisms that have been absent from Civilization for at least a decade: government types and their interaction with city corruption.
When you start a game of Civilization your empire is ruled by you (obviously) as dictator at the head of a Despotic government. You have to research other government types and the closest alternatives — Monarchy and The Republic — are a few rungs up the tech tree, so in your early expansion phase you’re stuck with Despotism. This isn’t such a bad thing, though, as Despotism offers free unit support costs; in Civilization units are supported with production (and in the case of Settlers food as well) rather than money, and so building up the initial Settlers you need to expand and develop your empire and the military you’ll need to defend yourself from marauding barbarians would be crippling at this early stage if you didn’t have Despotism. Even Despotism comes with a catch, in that each city only gets free support for a number of units that’s equal to that city’s size, and if you build more than that you have to start paying production. Given that production is quite hard to come by in Civilization, this can flatline your cities if you expand too fast and crank out too many units. So even the government type that’s specifically intended to aid early expansion has a natural brake on going too fast: you have to wait until a city reaches size 3 or 4 before it’s properly useful to your empire in terms of building and supporting units.
Corruption on the other hand actively siphons off money and production from your cities. Your capital has zero corruption, but subsequent cities will have increasing levels of corruption the further they are from your capital. Expansion may be comparatively cheap under Despotism, but Despotism experiences rampant corruption and pretty soon any new cities you found will have the majority of their resources consumed by it. This is an incredibly negative mechanic that I instinctively dislike (since it makes founding a new city feel awful when 80% of its resources are sucked away by corruption) and which was removed from the game in Civilization 4 for good reason, but it’s undeniably effective and almost works in Civilization. The idea is that you’re incentivised to upgrade from Despotism to Monarchy/The Republic by two things: first is that Despotism has a cap on the resources that you can gather from city tiles that gets removed when you change to any other government type, and second is that Monarchy and The Republic are both less corrupt forms of government. The flipside is that you’ll have to start paying full support costs for your units (even Monarchy doesn’t give you any free ones) but once your empire has developed to a certain point this will be outweighed by the boost you get from more resources and less corruption. Switching too early, on the other hand, can really throw a spanner in the works as the production costs of supporting units are far higher than the savings you get from the new government type.
This is a very good design idea. Figuring out when exactly you should switch away from Despotism to The Republic, and then from there to Democracy (which has its own drawbacks) is supposed to have balances and tradeoffs and make the player think carefully about when exactly to make the switch. Unfortunately Civilization shoots itself in the foot here thanks to its boardgame nature; it likes these very powerful, simple mechanics but doesn’t fully think through what’ll happen when people play the game for thousands of hours instead of running through it once or twice and then putting it back into the cupboard. The problem has two parts. One is the Democracy government type, which (somewhat naively) completely eliminates corruption and gives a significant trade boost to your empire, in exchange for extreme penalties for doing anything military. You’re supposed to switch to Democracy once your expansion phase is over and you want to start building your cities tall, which is why it’s situated halfway along the tech tree and should in theory take some time to get to, during which you’ll have to labour under one of the lesser forms of government and deal with the resulting corruption, slowing your expansion. By the time you switch to it the AI empires should have built up a decently threatening army and the military penalty Democratic civilizations receive should therefore be somewhat meaningful.
Unfortunately the Pyramids wonder — available after researching Masonry, one of the very first advances available — lets you use any government type even if you’ve not unlocked it yet. This means that you can switch to Democracy around 1500BC if you’re beelining for it, and while you take the intended production hit for unit support it’s massively outweighed by both the turbocharged growth your cities experience as the food restrictions on city tiles are lifted, and the trade boost that lets you simply buy anything you can’t produce, as well as boosting your science well beyond what it should be at this stage of the game. This lets you spam Settlers with wild abandon until you’ve filled every nook and cranny of your continent, at which point you can briefly switch to Communism to beat the shit out of your nearest neighbour with a technologically advanced military and take their space, and then back to Democracy again. There’s no other restrictions or penalties for expansion in Civilization — no spiralling technology costs, no happiness penalties, no maintenance — which is why the very first installment of the series ended up with empires that sprawled across the entire surface of the planet. It’s the optimal way to play.
Still, given that the Civilization series has spent the last twenty-eight years grappling with this problem and still hasn’t come up with an adequate solution, I’m not going to hold Civilization’s failure to do so against it. It’s interesting enough to discover that it was aware of the ICS problem from the outset and took steps to try and govern it, even if those steps were flawed. Anyway, there’s a bunch of other weirdnesses in the game that date it far more thoroughly, from the utter failure of the AI players to respect territory boundaries — they’ll happily park themselves right outside your cities, preventing you from working the tiles, and there’s no option to tell them to sod off — to there being no way to initiate diplomatic contact with other empires; you have to wait for them to come to you. That and the primitive interface make Civilization a bit too painful to play compared to Civilization 2, which is the same game with the rough edges sanded off.
I do think that there’s a lot to learn from the way Civilization handles world-building, though, and its generally positive (if somewhat privileged) attitude towards the that world. It’s a game that celebrates humanity’s achievements and which looks towards the future with an optimistic view that seems very out of place in the cynical landscape of 2019. You can cure cancer in Civilization. You can contact aliens by building the SETI wonder. And yes, you can build a spaceship and colonise other worlds, which is actually shown in the goddamn ending sequence here rather than the game instantly ending when you launch the spaceship. It’s a very outward-looking game, which is refreshing in this era of constant navel-gazing via the internet and social media. Given that this is so remarkable when the Civilization series is still going strong (there’s an expansion pack for Civilization 6 coming out next month, in fact) is a pretty damning indictment of how recent incarnations of Civilization have chosen to portray that broad sweep of human history — but I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s just say that OG Civilization is a product of its time, but that’s precisely why I still find it fascinating almost three decades later; the difference in its approach and outlook is rather stark when compared to almost any modern 4X, and for me that ensures it avoids being reduced to a mere historical curio. Few other games from 1991 can say the same.